The third-generation 2014 MINI Cooper Hardtop may be the largest one ever, but don’t get your bikini briefs in a bunch just yet, lover of small things.
It’s not all that much bigger (a couple of inches here and there) or heavier (less than 100 pounds) than the BMW-bred 2001 original, and they’ve put all the extra space to good use. There’s more tech, more safety and more refinement than a Motoring fan could dream of, and it all adds up to a very good car to drive, indeed.
That even counts the one thing that was subtracted – a piston. The new one is powered by an all-new 1.5-liter three-cylinder turbo. It’s a version of the one used by the BMW i8 hybrid supercar, tuned here to deliver 134 hp and up to 42 mpg, both figures a fair amount higher than last year’s model.
That’s with the 6-speed manual transmission, which is also good for 30 mpg city, and you have to try very hard to do any worse. The optional 6-speed automatic is rated at 29/40 mpg.
The cabin has a smidge more room for cargo and passengers, but is still very much subcompact. It’s dressed to the nines all around, with all of the hard, cheap plastic banished to the nether regions and the dash done up in a rich, soft-touch material that looks like MINI’s designers pulled a job in the BMW 3-Series supply cabinet before escaping through the sewers of Munich.
So there’s no longer a need to justify poor interior quality with performance and style, as has always been the case with the MINI Cooper, because now it has all three and does a far better job living up to its $20,745 starting price ($21,300 for 2015 models.)
Don’t worry, you can still add five figures to that with the myriad trim options and factory accessories available to customize your car, plus outfit it with self-steering parking assist, an adjustable suspension, adaptive cruise control and a pedestrian detection system that’s perfect for the MINI’s natural urban habitat.
My test car had none of that, though. It was a good, old-fashioned stripper dressed only in a pair of snazzy high heels (which on a MINI Cooper means its optional 16-inch wheels) with nowhere for the flaws to hide. Fortunately for it, I found only one. By accident.
The engine’s got a deep voice, those relatively large pistons pumping out a nice, buzz-free thrum. I sampled the same motor in a prototype BMW last year, and it’s just as smooth and potent in production spec. It’s so refined that I caught myself cruising down the highway in third gear a couple of times without even realizing it.
The car gets off the line nicely, it can chirp the tires shifting into second gear and the transmission is so precise that it clicks into position like a knife switch. It also automatically blips the throttle when you downshift, just like the new Corvette Stingray. It did miss a couple and it can be deactivated in performance mode, but with the electronics available these days, every car with a manual should offer this feature. It lets you be lazy without lurching when you’re tooling around.
You will certainly be doing much of that and more if you buy this car. Even without the electronic shocks, the ride is as good as it gets in a vehicle this small, and the handling is as sharp as MINI’s self-promoted reputation would lead you to believe.
The steering is lightning-quick, there is no understeer or push at all, and when you’re at the limit you can coax it into a Mario Kart-like drift and use the throttle to balance your attitude through a curve. It’s easy to get carried away.
Thankfully, MINI finally moved the speedometer from the center of the dashboard to behind the steering wheel, where it belongs and is actually useful. There’s also an available head-up display and a programmable speed alert for those with no self-restraint.
As it turned out, I could’ve used some of that myself. During one admittedly enthusiastic 1-2 shift, the knob on the gearshift lever came off, taking the entire boot and bezel with it. It clicked back in just fine and didn’t happen again, but since MINI has never exactly had the highest dependability ratings, you might want to keep it in mind.
It is the small things that matter, after all.
2014 MINI Cooper Hardtop
Base price: $20,745
As tested: $22,145
Type: 4-passenger, 3-door front-wheel-drive hatchback
Engine: 1.5L turbocharged 4-cylinder
Power: 134 hp, 162 lb-ft torque
Transmission: 6-speed manual
MPG: 30 city/42 hwy
Gary Gastelu is FoxNews.com's Automotive Editor.